Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an autocrat’s autocrat, a dictator’s dictator. A man who honors the tradition of autocrats past and serves an aspirational purpose for would-be dictators of modernity.
Erdogan has everything you want in an autocrat. If you made a list of things you expect in an honest-to-goodness autocrat, he checks every box. In the past three years alone, he i) survived a coup, ii) used the coup attempt to justify imposing martial law, iii) nullified an election, iv) successfully consolidated power in a position he basically made up, v) installed his son-in-law as economic czar in the middle of a financial crisis, vi) enshrined his own version of economics into his country’s monetary policy, vii) launched multiple military incursions into neighboring countries in the interest of stamping out an entire ethnic group, viii) become a caricature of himself that makes him just funny enough to be perversely lovable, but not so cartoonish that he risks becoming a complete joke à la Gaddafi.
He’s also got a farcical archenemy in Fethullah Gülen, which gives him a scapegoat whenever something goes wrong. That’s something you need if you’re an autocrat – you have to have an archenemy. Because invariably stuff is going to go awry and because you need to project an air of infallibility, you can’t very well take the blame for anything, so having a scapegoat is a prerequisite.
Erdogan has also gone toe-to-toe with the most powerful people on the planet. Those clashes have met with varying degrees of success, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who has, all in the last three years, thumbed his nose at Angela Merkel (for being a pain in the ass over the migrant crisis), shot down a Russian war plane (for daring to get too close to his border) and engaged in all manner of diplomatic brinksmanship with Washington, going so far as to jail Americans and accuse the CIA of conspiring with terrorists (YPG) in Syria, with absolutely no regard for how that might affect NATO.
This is why, when it became readily apparent that Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate earlier this month on orders from Mohammed bin Salman, we variously suggested that the Crown Prince might have picked a fight with the wrong world leader – Erdogan is no Justin Trudeau.
To be sure, there will come a time when bin Salman (assuming he gets through the Khashoggi debacle without losing his grip on power) will be more than up to the task when it comes to dealing with Erdogan, but as things currently stand, the 33-year-old’s experience deficit vis-a-vis Turkey’s strongman has put Riyadh behind the proverbial eight ball.
Remember, Erdogan has an axe to grind. This isn’t just about Ankara making it clear that if anyone is going to chop up a journalist in Istanbul, it’s going to be Turkish intelligence, not some silver-spoon-fed amateurs that flew in on private jets from Riyadh. This is about the Muslim Brotherhood, revenge for the quashing of the Arab Spring and also about scoring one for Ankara’s ally in Doha, following the Saudi-led blockade that threatened to spark an economic crisis in Qatar in the summer of 2017.
In short, the Khashoggi killing is Erdogan’s big chance to usurp the Crown Prince and change the regional balance of power and he (Erdogan) is holding all the cards. Or at least that’s how he’s thinking about it.
The Saudis are on the ropes right now. The Kingdom has changed its story on Khashoggi on at least three occasions so far under pressure from Erdogan who is steadily leaking information about the murder to the press.
On Thursday, Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said investigators have concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was in fact premeditated. That was a remarkable turn. It was just three weeks ago when the Crown Prince claimed Riyadh had no knowledge of any operation and that Khashoggi was in fact alive and well. And it was just seven days ago when the Saudis said Khashoggi’s death was the result of a “fist fight” gone wrong.
Now, they’re saying there was indeed a plan to kill Khashoggi in the consulate. The only thing that’s left of the original story is the Kingdom’s steadfast refusal to admit that bin Salman had anything to do with it, a contention that is patently absurd for obvious reasons.
All of these reversals in the “official” narrative emanating from Riyadh come courtesy of Erdogan. He has wielded Turkish media deftly over the past three weeks to tantalize the international community with (sometimes gruesome) details of the murder and every time it looks like the Saudis are set to circle the wagons, Ankara leaks something else.
Well on Friday, while speaking in Ankara, Erdogan took things up another couple of notches, calling the Saudis’ statements on the Khashoggi murder “childish” and “comical”, with the former representing a clear jab at the 33-year-old Crown Prince.
He went on to demand that the 18 people the Saudis have arrested be “handed over” to Turkey. Here, specifically, is what he said:
If you want to eliminate this suspicion, the key point for our collaboration is those 18 people. If you are unable to make them speak, since the incident took place at the consulate in Istanbul, hand them over to us and let us prosecute them.
I don’t think I have to say this, but the Saudis aren’t going to be “handing over” those 18 “suspects” to Erdogan. For one thing, they aren’t really “suspects”. Rather, they are either people who were enlisted by the monarchy to plan and execute the operation or else they are just some random nobodies that bin Salman is going to use as sacrificial lambs. More than likely, it’s a combination of both. The point is, they are not people who have been identified as nefarious “rogue” conspirators as part of a serious, credible investigation.
Additionally, the Saudis are well aware of what would happen should they inexplicably decide to “hand over” 18 people to Erdogan. Hint: Some of those 18 people would find themselves suffering a similar fate to that which befell Khashoggi, only at the hands of Erdogan’s security apparatus.
In case you’re wondering whether Erdogan has even more evidence to implicate the Crown Prince, the answer would appear to be “yes”. He claimed today that Ankara is still sitting on information they haven’t shared with the international community.
That may be a bluff – or not. And bin Salman has no way of knowing which, because while Turkish intelligence is “cooperating” with the Saudis, you can be sure Ankara isn’t going to reveal everything that Turkey knows.
It gets better. Apparently, the Saudi prosecutor who is in charge of the internal “investigation” is actually going to be in Turkey on Sunday, Erdogan says. That should produce all manner of amusing headlines.
And listen, Erdogan wasn’t done. He also talked about Syria on Friday. Here’s the thing about Erdogan: When he feels like he’s got the momentum on one front, he has a penchant for riding the wave, where that means making all kinds of demands about things that are only tangentially related. Today, for instance, he said this about a joint effort with the U.S. to patrol Manbij (in Syria):
Instead of being idled around in Manbij, we are determined to turn our focus and energy on east of Euphrates. [The U.S.] is stalling and this is my final warning.
Of course by “east the Euphrates” he likely means YPG territory. To Erdogan, YPG is synonymous with PKK, a group which is second only to Fethullah Gülen on the list of people Erdogan hates.
You can think about all of this as a poker game where Erdogan has just raised enough to put everybody all-in. Trump and bin Salman now have a choice. They can call. But if he’s not bluffing, well then…